There’s an old joke explaining why the business failed. The punch line is, “We lose money on every sale, but we make it up in volume.”

That’s the attitude some consumers have about their standard of living. Instead of taking the long view and living a bit below their means, they’d like to live above their means — not just now and then, but all year long.

That kind of thinking has a price, and it can be a hefty one. Just ask consumers who have run up so much on their credit cards that they feel unable to get out from under the weight of their debt.

The answer for many consumers, in the short term, is credit counseling. The long-term solution, for all of us, is to become financially literate. That means knowing what we need to know to make sound financial decisions and living within our means.

Setting aside for the moment any finger pointing over the lack of a new federal budget, we’ll simply note that President Barack Obama has designated April as Financial Literacy Month. The one-stop website for government-issued advice is — it includes a link to many state and local government agencies, as well as federal bodies, that offer financial education.

Whatever your source of information, a worthy goal is establishing a workable budget. That may be easier said than done in an economy that continues to give mixed signals about its health. But it is a goal, and there are tangible steps than can be taken toward achieving it.

Step one is creating a budget. By adding all your monthly expenses and comparing that total with your income for the same period, you have a clear reading of your financial health. When totaling expenses, try to include some savings; money that’s set aside can be critical when emergencies happen.

Take a look at where you keep your money. Some banks — especially larger ones — tend to charge higher fees to handle your money. Do some comparison shopping, and you may find an alternative (smaller bank, credit union, etc.) that charges smaller fees or none at all.

The budgeting process forces you to take a hard look at the money that’s coming in and going out every month. Your dollars become more than numbers on a statement. The exercise should help you feel more in control of your monetary situation.

Using that control, see if you can live a little below your means. There are temptations everywhere to live above our means, and that’s how many consumers get into trouble. Careful budgeting coupled with a resolve to keep our “standard of living” within our means can greatly lessen stress over one’s financial health.

A statewide gathering set for May 2 in Augusta may help promote such efforts. It’s the fourth annual Fostering Financial Literacy in Maine Schools Conference, and it’s organized by corporate, nonprofit and government sponsors. The aim is to give educators the tools to help students, kindergarten through college, prepare for life in the real world. For information about the conference, call Maine’s Office of Securities at 877-624-8551 or email

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit or email